The UK culture secretary Nadine Dorries has called for cultural sanctions against Russia in order to further ostracise Vladimir Putin’s regime.
In a statement to the House of Commons yesterday, Dorries described culture as “the third front in the Ukrainian war”, saying cultural isolation could be as effective as economic sanctions.
She said: “In the last week I’ve been working to mobilise the full might of the UK’s soft power against the Russian state, and applying pressure – both publicly and privately – across the sectors, to use every lever at their disposal to entrench Putin’s position as an international pariah.”
Dorries said she had called on Unesco to bar Russia from hosting its annual World Heritage conference there in June. She said: “It’s absolutely inconceivable that this event could go ahead in Putin’s country, as he fires missiles at innocent civilians in neighbouring Ukraine. If it does go ahead, the UK will not be attending.”
She told the house: “We will keep ratcheting up the pressure on Putin. I will use all the levers in my department to ensure he is fully ostracised from the international community.”
Writing in Arts Professional, cultural commentators James Doeser and Anna Marazuela Kim also called for sanctions, saying: “Cultural diplomacy and soft power are real tools of influence. The evidence shows that by boldly asserting our sector’s values, we can help achieve the wider strategic aim of mediating a brutal conflict.
“This demands that we boycott, disengage, disinvite, no-platform, and otherwise exclude official Russian cultural partners from what we put in our galleries, on our stages, in our publications.”
They said such a boycott would be “not punitive but strategic”, intended to force conversations within Russian society confronting the fact that their military policies have turned them into a pariah state.
Several institutions have begun cutting ties with Russian partners. The Science Museum Group has cancelled its upcoming exhibition on the Trans-Siberian Railway, for which a state-owned Russian railway company was the principal partner, while the group's director Ian Blatchford has handed back a Russian state decoration awarded to him by Putin.
Museums Journal understands that discussions are under way at other organisations over their work with Russian individuals and institutions.
The war in Ukraine has put the sponsorship of UK cultural institutions by Russian oligarchs under the spotlight. The billionaire Petr Aven stepped down as a trustee of the Royal Academy of Arts this week. Aven, the head of Russia’s largest commercial bank, had been named in EU sanctions as “one of Vladmir Putin’s closest oligarchs”, according to a Guardian report.
Meanwhile the Guardian also reported that Tate has been urged to cut ties with another Putin associate, donor Viktor Vekselberg, who is an honorary member of the Tate Foundation. Another oligarch, Leonid Mikhelson, runs the V-A-C foundation, which has also funded Tate, while his daughter Victoria was a member of the Tate International Council until recently.
A Tate spokesperson told the newspaper: “Neither of these individuals are current donors, and there are no UK sanctions on any of Tate’s supporters.”
Some Russia-linked cultural institutions in the UK have condemned the war and distanced themselves from the Russian state.
London’s Pushkin House, a cultural centre focused on Russian culture, said this week: “As the oldest independent cultural centre based in the UK focusing on Russian culture, we feel it is now more important than ever to speak out. Pushkin House stands in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and condemns the Russian invasion and military aggression that is now affecting millions of innocent people in Ukraine.
“For almost 70 years we have been a forum for open-minded debate with freedom of speech at its heart. Our team is made up of a broad patchwork of cultural influences, viewpoints and backgrounds. The identity and beliefs of a Russian speaker in the UK should not be assumed based on the actions of the Russian state.”
The centre said it had decided to continue its programme in order to act as a “free voice of this shared anti-war sentiment” at a time of rigid censorship in Russia, but said it would reassess its programming and contribution to the anti-war effort.
The efforts come amid warnings that cultural heritage could be a particular target during the invasion of Ukraine, as Putin seeks to “erase” the country’s identity.
Earlier this week a Russian missile hit the Holocaust memorial site of Babyn Yar in Kyiv, where almost 35,000 Jews were massacred during the second world war. An onsite museum is believed to have been damaged by fire but most of the iconic memorials at the site were reportedly unscathed.
Many museum workers have remained in Ukraine, with some sleeping at their institutions to protect collections and buildings. Efforts are reportedly under way to evacuate some artefacts to neighbouring countries.